Healing Mission

I have been invited to speak at a First Nations Mental Health conference in Cairns next month. People ask “What are you going to talk about?” I mean a fair question to an old white guy. My topic is ‘Stories That Heal’ or the role of therapeutic storytelling. Stories like this:

Healing Mission
It was toward dusk when I finally arrived at Ngukurr. Not that I could see much on this, my first visit to the community, for the smoke from a welcome to country ceremony lay heavy in the still evening air. But I could see the RV’s, hundreds of them I learned later, most of them ‘grey nomads’ but several families too. Welcomed to country for a very special reason and on one condition – that they provide accommodation for at least two invited guests for two nights. The invitees were there to experience the premiere of a First Nations theatrical production titled Healing Mission, a play written and performed by indigenous people from the community.

Formerly known as Roper River Mission, Ngukurr is a community of some 2000 residents located near the Roper River in Arnhem Land, about 330 km south-east of Katherine. Some time ago, a small but determined group of women wanted to celebrate the centenary of the arrival of missionaries and the setting up of a church and school. It should have been a straightforward undertaking but it wasn’t. An equally determined group, mainly men led by an elder that saw little reason to celebrate the event, pushed back. It is unclear what drove their resistance, as best anyone can gather the reasons are a mixture of culture, theology, and a claim that the missionaries did more harm than good. In what seems to be the only stated view of the resisters they claim: “They brought a view of God that is not the God of our country, but one that helps white people get their way”. The only celebration they would be part of is one that respected dreaming and the Great Creator Spirit. As a non-churched believer I think ‘good luck with that idea’.

It seems good luck showed up – like amazing good luck. It was luck, for example that enabled the warring factions to arrive at an agreement of sorts and get the show on the road, so to speak. Opinions differ as to how they came to work together, but one version has it that a group of teenage girls, home from boarding school on the Queensland coast, grew exasperated with the discord, which by this time had become community-wide. They took matters into their own hands and proposed an imaginative way forward – write a play about the history of the missionaries, include the story of Ngukurr’s famous Anglican minister from boat-boy to ordained priest, and let the audience decide what was harm and what was good from the missionary endeavour in East Arnhem Land.

Before the audience could decide anything, however, a lot of work had to be done. The best hope of writing a play lay with the girls, but they had returned to boarding school. Curiously, the leader of the resistance, a respected elder, had had years to ponder the role of missionaries. Initially experiencing being their favoured son, he had considered training for ordination in the church, but he began to realise how many deeply-held beliefs would have to be laid aside. He was not prepared to discard his convictions and connection to the spirituality of the land, and as he began to question aspects of white man’s theology the ‘favoured son’ title soon become dangerous exile. While banished from the church, he held his status as elder in the community. However, playwright he was not.

Now as you know, I had only recently arrived in the community, so gathering insights as to how the play, now set for the world’s stage, came into being did not come easily. My hasty information-gathering however, did convince me of one thing. Somewhere in the process the movers and shakers had the good sense to search beyond their regions and follow the trails of indigenous people who left homelands and had made their mark in white-man’s world of theatre, music and event management. The search yielded amazing talent, and most important of all, talented and experienced people who had still retained a deep love of their culture – just waiting to be asked it seemed.

A big ask, but as it turns out, not too big. The playwright for example, herself a Yolnu woman, now a professor of theatre and dance at Macquarie University, enlisted the assistance of her post-graduate students. The students were delighted with the challenge, for they knew that their professor was extremely well connected in corporate, media, and government circles, and they knew also that her passion never failed to bring about great things. Great things like funding for them to travel to Ngukurr to interview the community members of both factions and weave a story that made a rich tapestry of lived experience. A tapestry with threads of such colour and diversity that any differences were beautifully woven into a single transcending whole. A story now ready for the stage, well not quite, a story ready for direction and production.

The professor did not reach the top of her game without having plays of hers directed and produced by people she trusted. People that she could entrust the birthing and coming to stage of her creation with nothing of the cultural sensitivities and subtle nuances missing. People who made themselves available for weeks of working with community where actors had to be cast from raw stock. And people, like the professor, that were passionate and not the kind to give up when things got fractious. Yes, there were resisters still, as there are in every community. Resisters to people from ‘outside’; to change of lifestyle; to giving up things; the people that did not share the vision of replacing what is with what could be. Ones that failed to see the amazing opportunity to be proud people once again, to take centre stage instead of hiding behind the theatre, dignity lost in a fog of shame.

And now the stage is set. More than one hundred dignitaries, many personally invited by the professor and also a fair contingent from the girl’s boarding school were there. For many, this was to be their first exposure to First Nation peoples’ story, and certainly their first ‘on country’. Reading the invitee list beforehand, it strikes me that rarely, if ever, has an audience been so diverse; members of the political, religious, corporate, academic tribes, merging into a coherent, observant, waiting, and yes somewhat uncertain whole. Guided to their seats by young community members, they lose their tribal identity and become part of a single age-old humanity witnessing the great drama of life played by actors on a mission – to bring together, to rise above differences, and, above all, to heal.

Fighter Pilot

My son shouted me a gold-pass ticket to see Top Gun – Maverick. No wonder it is breaking box office records – there is something about fighter pilots. It reminded me that somewhere in my files of patient records is a fighter pilot story. When I came home from the US I found it, made some minor changes and here it is:

(Name removed) is an 11 year old high-functioning Asperger’s boy; extremely bright; excelling at everything he does – swimming, surf-lifesaving, school work, with a flawless memory for detail. But, impossible to get along with. School demanded parents get ‘him seen to’; parents had him ‘seen to’ by all sorts of diagnostic professionals. In the mother’s words, they were all long on symptoms but short on solutions. So, out of some desperation she contacted me.

The first session did not go well. He didn’t want to go through the ‘being seen’ process all over again, gave me a summary of all the other people who had tried to work with him and what they had told him. His mother, becoming increasingly embarrassed, tried to moderate the scathing assessments of the professionals he had visited. The contempt for anything his mother said was undisguised, and you could imagine how she felt about being shown up in front of me. I felt for her, and after listening patiently, and with more recklessness than professionalism, I told him that no child in my presence speaks to his mother like that. I gave him a few helpful suggestions of a general nature and left it at that. I certainly did not expect any more contact.

His mother rang, and to my surprise said the boy wanted to come back and talk with me again. I agreed, but only on the condition that he be on his own. I started him working on a mind map – some way of organizing his thinking. On a follow-up visit he brought his completed mind map. As I expected it was a brilliant piece of work – this lad was aiming to make his mark on the world as a fighter pilot. Talk therapy I realized, would only work if it was in a context of activity. So I outlined the next project: making a clay original, applying latex rubber to make a mould, then casting a product in the mould before applying special metallic finishes. He chose to make a boar’s head with big tusks, he had in mind a small version of what one would see from the wall of a hunting lodge in Europe. Like I said, he was high-functioning. Very. While working away together I told him this story:

At the International Airshow recently, an American F14 Tomcat put on an impressive aerobatic display, and as the fighter landed, hundreds of people crowded around the area where it parked waiting to see the pilot. As the shimmering grey beast settled down, a ladder was placed alongside the cockpit, the canopy lifted, and out climbed the pilot. He carried his helmet and oxygen mask, paused on the top of the ladder and acknowledged the applause from the crowd. A minibus was parked nearby, and the rest of his ground crew were waiting for him. He walked toward them, and then an amazing thing happened.
He noticed a teenage girl in a wheelchair, and without hesitation turned and walked toward her, crouched down in front of her, talked at her level, signed his name on her program then tapped her gently on the knee before walking away. The crowd cheered.

“Do you know why they cheered?” I asked the boy. He didn’t, more concerned about getting the tusks to stay in place on the boar’s snout. I continued.

“The crowd had just seen one of the world’s best fighter pilots on display – no question this pilot knew his stuff and had just proved it. But when he chose to acknowledge someone who likely would never walk, let along fly a plane, he became more than a great fighter pilot, he became a great person. He showed that in the moment of his glory, he could be aware of others, to bring a memorable moment to someone who would appreciate it – that’s why the crowd cheered. You could well become the best fighter pilot in the business, but if other people don’t like you, all your skill doesn’t count for much. But, when you can be the best, and still show that you care about others, that’s what really matters”.

When the boy’s mother returned, she looked at the boar’s head and tried unsuccessfully to convey the impression that this was the thing people ‘seeing’ her son usually did. She phoned several days later expressing gratitude that her son was acting so much better toward his siblings, and wanted to know what I had done to bring about what she believed was the beginning of better things. My response was to for her to ask her son what we had done together, and if details were not forthcoming, prompt his memory with some reference to a fighter pilot.

She never did to get to understand what had happened, but wanted to discuss further appointments. I proposed a series of workshop sessions using ‘stealth learning’ – the boar’s head and more design projects being the context for other dimensions of learning based on a new understanding of the ‘context blindness’ of the Autism/Asperger’s disorder. It was some time before I had a reply. The parents had heard about another specialist in this disorder, and they had a referral to see him.

As I put the boar’s head back in the clay-bin, I wondered if the specialist would use such things, or more to the point, a fighter pilot.

Good Company

I am not sure if you have ever sat on the footpath outside a building site with your Grandson. If you have you will share my delight; if you haven’t you have something to look forward to. For more than an hour we watched three tower cranes lifting building materials skyward, cement trucks manoeuvring into very tight spaces, huge semi-trailers backing between stacks of scaffolding and whatnot, and workers of every size, nationality and gender doing their thing. But the thing is, I don’t think there was one of them that did not notice the little three-year-old sitting with his grandfather watching the action. The truck drivers had to watch their mirrors but still noticed Lucas and honked the horn. The crane doggers took a special interest and gave him the thumbs-up while they blew their whistles and the load they had just secured would spiral way above our head.
It felt so good to see men and women at work with such humanity. They were working hard, and I have no doubt their bodies would ache at the end of the day. From the footpath, they seemed to be happy. I was reminded of so many people I had dealt with in therapy, and raised the importance of ‘purposeful action’ – these people may have become physically tired, but emotionally they felt part of something that gave them purpose and meaning.

Looking at my photos later I noticed on the security fence: ‘Choate Construction – 100% employee owned.’ I had to google that later and find out what sort of company it was. Yes the sign meant what it said, and I also learned they had just taken out a national workplace safety award. They pride themselves in being a ‘family’ and looking after each other. Their patented railing system is used on building sites all over the country. I am sure the ‘thumbs up’ to a little boy was part of a deeper job satisfaction. In a world where so much attention is directed toward stuff being pulled down and destroyed, these workers were lifting up and pouring concrete. And, in the land of corporate capitalism where so many workers do not share fairly in the rewards for their effort, here was an inspiring example of people-as-family, not just ‘employees’.
To get to this land and come home again we flew Qantas. Yes, we were part of that well-publicised delay in Dallas, Texas, and I do not intend to join the pile-on against the national carrier. But I do want to say this. Travelling folk understand things can go wrong, after all the machines that take us across oceans are complex and to leave one country and arrive in another requires a lot of moving parts. And a lot of people. That is my point. The travelling folk, or at least as far as I could tell, the several hundred we were with, can deal with things that don’t function as they need to, but what made people angry was there were no Qantas employees to be seen or heard. The little we were told came from non-Qantas staff, and they seemed just as confused as we were about the representatives of the company being missing in action. Perhaps they didn’t care, after all their company is still fighting in court for their right to dismiss staff without proper consideration, legal or moral. The very opposite of ‘family’ rather than employees.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Since the early eighties, I have had an interest in successful well-run companies. A book entitled ‘In Search of Excellence – lessons from America’s best-run companies’ came out about that time, and I remember reading about Delta Airlines. So while in Atlanta recently, we had the opportunity to visit the Delta Museum. What a delight. I found out that what has become one of the world’s best airlines began as a crop dusting company in the Louisiana delta region. Formed to deal with the boll-weevil devastating the cotton crops, it soon grew into a passenger carrier and then a major global airline. The early aeroplanes are on display, along with the major types of post-war propeller planes through to modern jets. Very interesting, especially the opportunity to walk all around them as well as inside.
The thing that struck me most was that during the fuel price increases and economic hard times during the eighties, Delta refused to cut staff. This prompted three cabin staff to organise a fund-raising campaign to raise three million dollars to buy a next generation jet as a sign of gratitude and confidence in the airline’s future. Not surprising, after nearly thirty years’ service, it is an aeroplane proudly on display and housed in its own hangar. I don’t think there is anything like that at the Qantas museum in Longreach. It is difficult to raise funds to buy a new jet if you are missing in action, or worse still, without a job at the airline.
I write about a little boy sitting on the footpath; of cranes, cement trucks and aeroplanes, but it is people that count. They are integral to the many moving parts, and when they feel a sense of belonging and family loyalty, of being appreciated and valued, they make a worthwhile contribution. Things get built, and people get to faraway places. I just hope it is this world that my grandson gets to play his part in. I can hear the dogger’s whistle and see their thumbs up to that.

Brother

I only have one brother, and last week we went on a road trip. He uses his retirement to repair and service wind instruments, everything from huge tubas to tiny piccolos. Instead of engaging a trucking company, he chooses to deliver the instruments personally to the many schools, bands and conservatories of music. And, not unlike the piano tuner that plays a piece or two to celebrate his work, my brother has many old people’s homes that he calls in to play for the residents. With a fine sound system and classic pieces to accompany him, he plays his tuba, and according to the supervisor that welcomed us, its deep resonating sound somehow calms and appeals to the residents like nothing else. His repertoire is wide and on this occasion it included Ave Maria. I was surprised at the staff recording, not my brother and his tuba, but an old man in a wheelchair singing along. We learned later that the old man has been mute for years, but the power of the music transported him to another country and another time – he sang the entire piece in Latin.

My brother had a law practice, the only one in Balranald, far west NSW. And driving those vast distances to towns like Hay and West Wyalong, he gave a running commentary of stations changing hands, pointed out homesteads where he helped elderly clients put complex wills in place, court houses where magistrates adjourned proceedings to suggest a struggling defendant without counsel talk with Mr Edmunds for some advice. Pro bono of course. And before you think privileged up-bringing showing some easily afforded charity to the battlers, let me point out some backstory.

You see my brother left school early to take an apprenticeship in something that, if you know what it was, you are showing your age. A time when the insides of electric motors were stripped of their miles of wires and re-wound. A tedious and time consuming task that was taken for granted in an age when things were fixed instead of replaced. And like most of his mechanically-tasked peers, motorbikes and cars summed up his interests. Well, not exactly, his parents still insisted he take piano lessons, an activity he kept concealed from his mates. Then something happened, and I was with him when it did. Returning from a weekend away late at night just over a crest stood two black angus cows. We killed them both, and his highly modified pride and joy was a write-off.

It changed him. It was a change that gave him a new direction for his life. He moved from the workshop to a law office across the street. And there he met a lawyer whose life trajectory took him from a bakery to an acclaimed concert pianist, then moving into law late in life. This man became a mentor, and my brother began the slow process – read more than twenty years – of becoming qualified to practice law, all by correspondence study fitted around full-time work and raising a young family. Not online learning, this consisted of reams of notes requiring detailed responses, a course set and assessed by retired lawyers. And exams with upwards of 75% pass required. He failed many, including one notoriously difficult subject three times, meaning his entire work thus far would be lost for regulations prevented him attempting it again. His mentor had some influence and managed to have that requirement waived to allow a re-sit. He passed, and sometime later Dad, Mum, and us four kids went to Martin Place in Sydney to see him admitted to the bar as a barrister. It was a big deal for us.

On our road-trip we passed the old building in Hay where the NSW Law Society have their bi-annual meetings. When my brother retired the president of the society said a few words for the occasion. He said that “If one was looking for a lawyer that would ‘go for the jugular’ and not let go, there are several members that come to mind, but our colleague here is not one of them.” “If however you were in deep trouble and your only chance of staying out of jail was advocacy of the highest order, this man has no equal.” What a tribute.

About mid-way across the Hay Plains I asked him what triggered his passion for law, what kept him on track for so long without giving up. Without hesitation he replied “Remember when we studied To Kill a Mockingbird at school – I’m Atticus Finch”. The similarity is striking, for this tall self-effacing lawyer provided the only legal service over a wide area of western NSW. He told me he didn’t win many cases “because I didn’t have many innocent people, but I made a lot of friends and kept people out of jail”. Like Atticus, he was too modest to refer to the many indigenous people in that vast area that did not die in custody because they had an Atticus Finch.

As I said, I only have one brother, but a fine one indeed.

Island of Iona

The Abbey on Iona

Robyn’s people came from the Isle of Mull off the west coast of Scotland. Probably driven overseas by the ‘clearances’ that reduced the island population from more than ten thousand to about three thousand in a couple of years. Just off the southern tip of Mull lies a small island called Iona – described on the tour-bus itinerary as ‘the beginning of Christianity in the British Isles’ bought here by an Irish monk named Columba around 300. I was keen to try and find out what he actually brought to the island and after about five hours walking around the abbey, listening to the audio guide, reflecting in the cloisters and the burial grounds, reading the museum guides, I have a limited idea of what he brought, and a better idea of what he didn’t.

He brought religion with a focus on paying penance of some sort. Iona has been the destination of pilgrims for centuries, many of them, according to the recording, on their hands and knees leaving a trail of blood on the rocky path. The word ‘repentance’, such an important idea in Christian thinking comes from this idea of ‘paying penance’ a sort of painful grovelling in order to gain a level of acceptance (called ‘being worthy’). Pity the translators didn’t use the Greek word that just means ‘change of mind’. It would have saved these poor beggars a lot of pain and effort.

Columba bought icons, and interestingly, it was on Iona that the cross first became an icon. For the centuries prior to Columba, the Christians could not bring themselves to use the cross in any of their art, the memory of that dreadful event was still too raw. But that changed on Iona, huge stone crosses were everywhere, even a museum area dedicated to the earliest carved ones. In the same way, Columba bought a passion for decorating scripture texts, intricate decorations that must have kept the abbots busy for months, even years. The Book of Kells in a Dublin library is the most famous example from Iona.

But the most significant thing bought to Iona at this time, in our minds was celibacy. I say significantly, because, in Robyn and I individually musing on Iona, we came to a singularly spectacular lack, no families and no children. A theology lacking the centrality of family means God becomes a distant deity worshiped by acts of piety. Penance is all important because the notion of ‘father’ is absent and icons and texts become replacements for anything like a living loving relationship.

But clearly the most significant thing Columba didn’t bring to the island: not a single reference to Jesus anywhere. Hard to believe, and while I may have missed something written or said, it appears to be the case. Even the nuns housed some distance away gathered each morning to hear the teachings of, not Jesus, not the Apostles, but Augustine. The teaching of a man who, perhaps more than any other figure, derailed the movement, a new direction that left the beautiful simplicity and purity of the first century believers a distant memory eventually forgotten. And in its place, an institution characterised by the unholy alliance of church and state emerged and is with us still. But worse than that, the notion of heaven and hell was consolidated, driven by a ruthless Roman-style efficiency in converting the world to its view. Believe, go to heaven; remain unconvinced and go to hell, and this too, sad to say is with us still.

What I would have preferred to celebrate on the island was someone bringing what the first century believers had, a conviction that Jesus was who he said he was, introducing them to a view of God as father that changed everything. The Gospel* to them was good news indeed. They weren’t side-tracked by the six views of hell running at the time and were comfortable with the first defining creed because it didn’t mention any of them. What did make the later believers uncomfortable was Augustine, at the Emperor’s request, formulating a single view of God’s judgement and hell as eternal conscious torment. As I said, he derailed the Jesus movement.

A movement that knew a period of growth and spread of the Gospel the like of which the world had never seen and has not since. Almost the entire Mediterranean Basin in a few decades, and most notable, without churches as we know them, without ministers, and without the Bible. They met in homes, under the loose oversight of a member/elder, and with a few fragments of the words and deeds of Jesus, and a few Apostolic letters and an occasional visit from an Apostle. Most were illiterate and they had little interest in the Hebrew scriptures apart from the Psalms (one can still buy a New Testament and Psalms today), and from the fragments and letters, they took what was helpful in the encouraging each other in the love of Jesus. Teachers arose, many of them ‘false’ and in the words of the last apostolic writer, John, referring to their ‘anointing of the Spirit’: ‘You have no need for anyone to teach you’.

Had that last Apostle been on the tour bus to Iona he would have seen a lot that we have no need of – icons, penance, crosses, and abbeys. He would have asked: “Where are the families?” Perhaps he would have started some clearances of his own to make a place for what Jesus intended.

* I like Bruxy Cavey’s definition of the good news: Jesus is God with us come to show us God’s love, save us from sin, set up God’s kingdom, and shut down religion, so we can share in God’s life. See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9S38J9CyFks

Scotland the brave

We love Scotland, and we love the ease of fixing travel and accommodation in one mode – the small campervan. I say small, because apart from motorways, driving on UK roads is stressful in anything larger than a motorbike and sidecar, but camping in one of those is difficult. So, the small European camper was the next best thing, or so I thought. Being almost brand new, it was my introduction to automotive artificial intelligence. The relationship went south rather quickly. It clearly knew everything, and let me know when I tried to ignore it. More bipping alarms than a row of dump trucks going backwards, and the messages that came up on the ‘driver information centre’ all directed me to do something or other. Ignoring it was not a good idea; the relationship was clearly headed toward troubled waters. It wasn’t long before the ‘new information for the driver’ became a rather tart ‘read the driver’s manual before proceeding further’. I have been driving since I was a kid and don’t think I have ever read a driver’s manual – a workshop manual sure, but not how to drive a car.

Such thinking – yes it knew what I was thinking and detected that Robyn was leaning toward doing what it said (two relationships headed south now) – made the little foreigner deeply offended. I am sure it knew I was a headstrong Australian, so it decided to turn this little threat to its intelligence into a defence of National pride.

It knew the moment to strike and I was caught off guard. I mean how careful does one have to be just taking a photo, we were tourists after all. All hell broke loose. I can’t recall the exact sequence but it went something like this: I can’t open the door unless the thing is in park; can’t put it in park unless the brake is on; have to get back in to put the brake on; engine switches off when the brake is on to stop diesel fumes upsetting the atmosphere; can’t get out of the car if the key is still in the ignition; take the key out and the alarm sounds because the window is down to take the photo; can’t get the window up because the key is out of the ignition and alarm is still sounding. Robyn, sick of the alarm tells me to just do what it wants me to … I get mad at that as well as the car. Then she says I am developing a complex about it and it was that comment that convinced me she had been won over by the sneaky little devil. So, not many photos of Scotland. Just kidding. I must say if it was my car the wire cutters would make it more user friendly. Wouldn’t even need a workshop manual for that.

Nearly all the roads on the Scottish islands are single lane with passing places. And, surprisingly, it works rather well. Drivers are so considerate, one notices a car and quickly decides to pull into a passing place or, in response to a flick of lights, drive on, acknowledging their courtesy with a cheery wave. There are exceptions sadly. Drivers of high-performance European cars (no names but they have an ‘M’ and a ‘B’ in them) have an expectation of right-of-way and take it, always without a wave to acknowledge the fact that I reversed to find a place to pull off. Being an easy-going Aussie I wave when they pass, but only one finger.

Probably it was the complex Robyn talked about. When I delivered the camper back in Edinburgh, I left it out of park, the handbrake off, the keys in the ignition, the windows down, a string of instructions on the driver information screen, the bippers all going full blare, and walked away as a man who chooses intelligence of the non-artificial kind. Composed, assured, and confident that his wife will attend to the problems it causes. Intelligent camper, and headstrong to boot. Just kidding, again.

USA – the armchair ride

They say ‘young men see visions and old men dream dreams’. After seven decades I guess I am in the dreamer category, happy to admit it. Not sure about the visions but for as long as I can remember I have been a dreamer. By dreamer I mean those reflective moments (dreamers have a lot of those) when one explores: ‘I wonder what it would be like to …’ And then the dream takes shape, waits in the shadows for a while, then bursts centre stage and becomes the glorious reality. That’s why I don’t apologise for being a dreamer.

One such dream was an American road trip – the Interstates; the National Parks; the Midwest; the pioneer museums; the Native American memorials; and of course a romantic version of Route 66. Our elder son married a girl from Pennsylvania and they settled in Georgia, so staying with them meant we had opportunity to knock the dream into shape. An early consideration is what sort of vehicle, and either hire or buy. Dreamers can be rash, so it didn’t take long to settle on buying a Corvette convertible, for a road trip is about the driving after all. No lumbering RV for this old guy. The RV may have let me see the boats from a bridge instead of a guardrail, but I would have missed seeing all those truck wheels just beside my ear. We still camped in State Parks with light-weight gear and from our tent door we watched grey squirrels fascinated with the chrome wheels on the Corvette.

We got to love the open road. I can still feel the excitement of accelerating along the on-ramp. It became a bit of a joke between us. My reasoning was that I didn’t want to get in the way of that truck, but Robyn would notice the truck was nowhere near us. We were amazed at how far one could travel on the Interstates in a day. Our pattern was mostly an early start, a late breakfast, fruit and snacks at roadside rest stops, mostly with a memorable chat to the veteran volunteer keeping things tidy, then an evening meal before either a motel or camp. Restaurant food was mostly such a generous serve it became a next-day meal. In all we travelled 8,384 miles across 22 states over eight weeks in a dream car with arm chairs. Although we didn’t camp as often as we had intended because of the cold weather in the northern states (anything like an overnight low of low thirties was out of the question), we were still well below budget. Robyn’s ‘armchair ride across America’ didn’t cost the earth.

While we loved the open roads, the Blue Ridge Parkway was a highlight. Four hundred miles of following various ridges and valleys of the Appalachian Mountains, a road without any commercial vehicles or towns, but lots of scenic views. Blessed with sunny weather, we drove it with the roof off, waved to other Corvette drivers, and let the hundreds of motorcyclists pass by pulling into a scenic overlook. We took our time, camped beside a little creek in a deep river valley. Robyn asked about bears and was told “We haven’t seen any this season …” Hardly reassuring, but he added that the dogs would bark if any came close. They did bark, I told Robyn it was definitely a Doberman bark, perhaps a Bull Mastiff, or maybe an Irish wolf hound/Rottweiler cross; all very cross so no bear would dare come near the camp. She believed me, because dreamers can be awfully charming as well as dreadful liars.

People ask about ‘best part’ of the road trip and it is difficult to list just one. However the dogs bark camp on the Parkway is certainly one. I remember the two of us after having cleaned up supper things and before climbing into the tent just having that couples chat. ‘This is as good as it gets’ we agreed. It was nearly the end of our weeks on the road and we couldn’t bring to mind a single misfortune, any car problems, roadside delays, being shot at, and, best of all, never a cross word between us. Yes, the dreams that old men dream can burst into glorious reality, and remain the memories of a life well lived.

Different in every sense

In these Covid times with international travel a distant dream, the Northern Territory is enticing would-be travelers to their state. One frequently seen ad is captioned: ‘Different in every sense’. Robyn and I beat each other to say ‘sure is’ every time we hear it, for we spent a couple of years in the territory at an indigenous boarding school miles from anywhere.

My arrival at the school was different. The school was in crisis: too few students to make it viable and too many students enrolled that didn’t want to be there. The principal had been fired and house parents were sending trouble-makers home. And then I show up knowing very little of the background, and no clue as to where ‘home’ might be. Two boys were walking across the oval with their bags, so I asked them where they were going. ‘Home’ was their reply, so I rode my bike alongside them thinking I can accompany them home, teacherly duty like. Where is home? I asked. Ngukurr (sounds like nooker) they replied. ‘Is it far?’ ‘No’ was their answer. Then I asked if we will be there before dark. No, it will be a few days they said. At that I persuaded them to come home and stay at my place with the promise to sort things out tomorrow. Next morning I find out that ‘home’ is more than nine hours drive away. So, the expelled kids live with us, and when a few more join us the full wrath of the house parents’ comes crashing down. Not pretty, but necessary. Not my first exposure to that judgment/punishment vs compassion/tolerance dilemma, and also not my first time as defender of those who need somebody in their corner. Guess who became principal.

Nearly all schools have camps, but these were different – a boys camp and a girls camp. One highly organized, many topics of major significance (sex education), guest specialist speakers, great food, good accommodation, and of course hot showers and little gift bags of perfume goodies. The other was, well the word that comes to mind is ‘blokey’. Yes, we covered the sex bit, but hardly made it the focus. Showers, no. Bags of goodies, yes, chips. Guest speakers, no but watched a great movie. Our focus as stated was: ‘Fishing and Fun’ so we all knew why we were there – to do what these boys do best. One thing that amazes me is the boys’ approach to fishing. They catch fish to eat, not later when they have caught enough, but there and then. No gutting or scaling, but straight on the fire, turned a couple of times then the skin peeled off and the flesh eaten. Equally amazing, their expression of fun is to do a forward roll and land on their feet, sometimes several in a row. So sand dunes and river banks make a perfect gym equivalent. And no, I didn’t try it.

Sport is common to all schools, but here again our school was different. Robyn, myself and another teacher took a group of students into Darwin to play inter-school soccer. We didn’t win many games, mainly because some schools take their sport very seriously. We had just come from a camp of fishing and fun, and the fun aspect carried over onto the soccer field. Competition demanded girls in each team. Most schools had a token two girls; not us. Our girls are used to mixing it with the boys and played as good as the boys. Barefoot and fast, kicking and all. Oh what a delight to see such lithe supple young people enjoying themselves and scoring amazing freakish goals. Discipline poor; teamwork barely; strategies non-existent; captain/leadership none; coaching next question; having a good time and spending too much energy chasing each other, yes. It was the only time I saw a group of players decide to have a little chat in the middle of the game, completely oblivious to the action around them, then with an amazing burst of energy join the game again. They play the game of life by their rules.

And I remember the excursions. Yes, we used the college bus and took a cut lunch, but in most other respects it was an excursion with a difference. They were mustering at Twin Hill Station, an indigenous owned and run cattle property just twenty minutes from the college. One of our house parents was a senior figure in the company and we were there at his invitation. We took the four-wheel-drive bus, a great lumbering beast that allowed us to really look down on the world, and on the cattle. Fourteen hundred of them.

We saw the vehicles first, a row of utes and quad bikes to slow the cattle down. You see these Brahman cross animals are part wild and you can’t just ‘drove’ them quietly. When they go they run, and would lose too much condition and exhaust themselves if let go. Then a row of utes following the giant herd and when they saw us, they stopped, and next thing the bus was empty and all our kids were up on the backs of the utes shouting and laughing. Not sure I gave permission for that, but like the animals they were following – part wild. And the helicopter, it was something else. I tried to film it, but half the time it was lower than the trees and I couldn’t see it. I was hoping it didn’t fly that low near the kids, or they would be swinging from the skids for sure – they wouldn’t be the only ones on the skids if anything happened. A day of cattle, noise, dogs, quad bikes, utes, a helicopter, men in big hats, and four huge road trains lined up. No wonder Robyn and I had to drag them away: “Aw Miss, can’t we stay here …”

Those tempted by the ad campaign won’t get to experience what we did of course, but they will see barrel-chested men on Harley Davidsons wearing nothing more than navy singlet and shorts; four-wheel-drives jacked up high with pony-sized hunting dogs in cages on the back, and they will experience a frontier approach to life unlike anywhere else in Australia. Yes, the Territory is different in every sense.

Funerals and Ghosts

I overheard the funeral service of Prince Phillip on Robyn’s phone. The hymn ‘for those in peril on the sea’ was what caught my attention. Churchill requested that the hymn be sung during his meeting with Roosevelt on board a battleship in 1941. I requested the hymn be sung during a memorial service mid-way across Bass Strait by a group of my senior students in 1985. Now remember my teaching role was to take school resisters and offer them something resembling a worthwhile learning experience in their final years. But hymn singing you ask? I can still picture those brawny youths standing around the piano at home while Robyn tried to get post-choir-boy voices into something like harmony.

Yes hymn singing. Well only one hymn, couldn’t let my music-teacher wife get carried away, and besides these school resisters had had a lot of practice at marching to the tune of a different drummer. Football was their thing not religious music, and it occurred to me that an activity that built upon their physical capacities would engage them, and the idea of crewing on two large ocean-going yachts had immediate appeal. It had also occurred to me that kids can learn surprisingly well if it is in a context, so sailing became a context for swimming and first aid qualifications, and a whole host of new skills for the trip. The hymn was to be part of a dawn service to honour the hundreds of lives lost on the coasts either side of a narrow strait between King Island, Tasmania, and Cape Otway, Victoria.

Nineteen eighty five was the 150th anniversary of the settlement of Victoria as well as International Year of Youth, both events offering funding for state or youth activities. The funding provided each crew member with a state-of-the-art life jacket, and a sweat shirt with the anniversary logo across the chest. Fortunately the life jackets were worn but never needed, and unfortunately the sweatshirts were worn and resulted in the entire memorial service ending up on the cutting room floor. The morning of the service was shrouded in a heavy sea mist, and the white sweatshirts meant that everyone looked like ghosts making a white trail on the film with every movement. Not a good look at all. Twenty odd ghosts in the mists at a service for lives lost at sea looked too perilous indeed.

This boat is all we want … yeah right

Have you ever noticed that when we talk about men and their toys it is never ‘toy’? It is this way because it never stays as one. It starts out as one, then a bigger/newer/faster one, and then another and so on. After I had my first sailboat a while, I bought a Mirror dinghy, and I remember telling Robyn it is all we will ever need in a sailboat – yeah, right. The Hartley TS 16 came next, and lots of sailing family holidays with our two boys. All we ever needed, until … standing headroom would be nice … a toilet and shower would be nice … four proper bunks … get the picture?

I am not sure if these were ‘must-haves’ for your next boat, but a couple of decades ago there were not too many of these boats one could put on a trailer and tow off to the islands. So, nothing else for it, I would have to design and build my own. Some years later a ‘thing of indescribable beauty’ emerged from my shed ready for some far-off islands. Well not just any islands, but the seventy-four that make up the Whitsunday Islands in north Queensland.

I had sailed among them before. A career of running student enterprise programs where young people developed products or skills they marketed to fund travel, meant as their teacher, I had to go along and keep an eye on them. I mean, one has a duty of care to ensure the kids are safe out there in the real world – on ski-fields, on remote indigenous communities, on Greyhound buses in America, ocean sailing, and many yacht charters, including the Whitsundays. I didn’t let on to the kids, but I said to myself, the next time I come up here it will be with my own boat and my family and lots of time. They found out of course, for I didn’t show up at school for six months and came back suntanned and happy.box_ck

A group of young people enjoying the fruit of their fee-for-service work which funded
their travel plans. In this case yacht charter – Box’s Creek, Gippsland Lakes